What’s the State of World of Warcraft in 2016?

World of Warcraft is still going strong after nearly twelve years now. I’m a relative latecomer to the series; I joined up in the summer of 2014, played a couple of characters to level 20, and decided to upgrade when I found a class I really liked playing- the monk. I had a lot of fun levelling my character, and thoroughly enjoyed running the late-game raids in Pandaria to about mid-level.

I kind of fell out of playing WoW after the Warlords of Draenor expansion came out, though. Blizzard made a decent amount of enhancements and tweaks to the game with update 6.0, like making it easier to track the main story quests of the expansion and enhancing raid matchmaking in the higher difficulties (you used to have to join a guild or throw a group invite request into the oblivion that is the general chat box, but now groups can specify level requirements that match you to them if you search for a group). Gearing up your character while you level up and during the endgame is better than ever with a lot of pickups tilted in favour of your class and specification. And I hear that people used to have to physically travel to the entrance of each dungeon in their own group. Shudder.

But Blizzard have also introduced a slew of changes which left lots of players cold. Firstly, each new patch carries a number of tweaks to each class’ DPS and healing potential. While it certainly shakes up the DPS rankings with each change, it often leads to a great deal of frustration on the part of people whose characters are now towards the bottom of that table. We’re at the point where classes at the top of the rankings are capable of many thousands more points of damage than those at the bottom, to the point that people at the bottom of the rankings are consistently left feeling cold, and who can blame you when certain players are arbitrarily capable of nearly 130% of your maximum damage output? I know that it must be incredibly difficult to balance such a diverse set of skillsets, but we’re twelve years in now, and there shouldn’t be such massive differences between the classes.

Another sore point is Blizzard’s insistence on all but culling flying from the game. Historically you could fly once you’d reached top level and bought an expensive flight license for whatever zone you want to fly in. It seemed for a while that Blizzard was going to abandon flight altogether from Warlords of Draenor onwards, but have since deigned to allow flight in this expansion once you get the Draenor Pathfinder achievement. Which would be cool, except for the point that this achievement basically requires a ridiculous amount of exploration to complete hundreds of objectives. I understand that working for cool features like flight makes us appreciate it more, and that Blizzard wants us to engage with and explore more of the world that they’ve slavishly crafted for us, but this feels like way too arduous-a task for a feature that we’ve enjoyed since Burning Legion nearly nine years ago.

Flight already had a fairly steep price tag attached to it. While lots of people have mastered the art of gold farming by now, and just playing through the game now rewards you with several grand for a few hours’ questing, it wouldn’t be too hard to Blizzard to just hitch up the price for a Draenor flight license to, say, 10,000 gold. That’s a whole lot of quests’ worth of gold to save up, and while it’s chump change for some people it’s not unthinkably expensive or unsatisfyingly cheap for the majority of players in WoW’s current economy.

It’s just bizarre that with Blizzard losing subscribers at the rate they are (they lost about a quarter of their subscribers in 2014 and at the most recent estimates at around 5.5 million subscribers) which was only temporarily eased by the release of Warlords of Draenor– you’d think that they’d go to some lengths to change up the formula in a way that doesn’t tick people off. They’ve even announced that they aren’t releasing subscriber numbers going forward. Restricting people’s movement options to allow more intimate exploration doesn’t exactly please people when a) the movement system is antiquated, b) the environments don’t actually feel like they’re well-designed for exploration in the way they want us to explore, and c) people at top level aren’t going to want to explore each zone for hours on end while they can be doing endgame quests to level up for raiding. The endless treasure and objective hunts aren’t particularly fun or compelling, and it feels pretty insulting to pursue them for hours on end for a feature that’s been in the game since 2007. The maps aren’t easy to read, and the interface to use them functions, but isn’t intuitive.

I know that I’m harping on about the changes to flight, but I think it’s more important than just a cool way to get around. See, when you start up in WoW, you’ve got a hell of a lot of game ahead of you before you can reach the satisfaction of the endgame. It takes a while to get used to your character’s moveset, and hours and hours of levelling to get to the endgame (you could boost a character to level 100, but this really should not be attempted by someone that doesn’t know the game intimately already). While the levelling process is pretty enjoyable, especially with friends, the whole point (for me, anyway) is to get to the endgame content. What really drove me as I was levelling up was the promise of late-game experiences like awesome looking gear, epic raids, and the ability to fly. Blizzard clearly understands that the success of WoW is in part to their catering to lots of different playstyles; explorers, socialisers, completionists, challenge seekers. For me, equipping my high-level character with the ability to take to the sky on a hard-earned mount was a massive hook pulling me through the earlier portions of the game.

Not to mention that a new, more efficient movement option makes completing explorative side-challenges more attractive, even in areas I’d levelled though and become bored of from the ground level. I just don’t think that people should have to explore every nook and cranny of the game to unlock this feature. Most will be sick of the place before they have the chance to fly above it. It seems shortsighted of Blizzard to shoehorn people into the completionist playstyle for such a beloved element of play, especially when they continue to sell flying mounts on their online store for £17-22.

With that out of the way, I’m hoping that Blizzard has greater success with upcoming expansion Legion. A large portion of the fanbase was disappointed that Warlord of Draenor didn’t bring any new classes or races to play, while Legion is set to introduce the Demon Hunter, a new class focuses on DPS. Annoyingly, only the Alliance’s Night Elves and the Horde’s Blood Elves can play as the class in a decision restricted by the game’s lore. Regardless of this, I’m excited to give the new class a try.

Another significant introduction with Legion will be the introduction of new Artifact Weapons. The idea is that very soon on in the expansion, you get a quest for a weapon which will be the only weapon you’ll need in the expansion, which will level up with you and upgrade based on your class specification, becoming stronger and aesthetically evolving as you play. This feature is so important to me that it might bring me back to my peak interest in the game where Warlords of Draenor has failed. I’ve always felt like the fickle drop rate of loot in the game has unfairly limited the effectiveness of my characters, while the sure possession of a weapon that’ll be appropriately powerful for my character’s level should relieve a good portion of that stress while preserving the satisfaction of improving my weapon as I progress. It’s the kind of player-friendly move that Blizzard needs to keep people interested in maintaining and adopting WoW.

While WoW’s numbers have taken a significant hit recently, Blizzard still has a player base that’s several million strong after all this time. I certainly haven’t noticed a lack of players while playing. While Blizzard has stumbled with recent tweaks and a lukewarm reception to Warlords of Draenor, you can’t deny that they’re dedicated to maintaining WoW with frequent patches and good customer-facing service. Legion looks like it might refresh the ageing behemoth a bit, and I’m tentatively optimistic that is will; for all its flaws, WoW is a hell of an experience and I’d be glad to be drawn in again.

Image credits- mmo-champion.ru

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